Did Oxford Have Sonnets Delivered to Southampton in the Tower? The Evidence is Yes — And that Southampton Used Them to Write His Poem to the Queen

Here is evidence that Edward de Vere seventeenth Earl of Oxford was able to send some of his Shakespearean sonnets into the Tower prison room of Henry Wriothesley third Earl of Southampton to help him write his poem to Queen Elizabeth, pleading to be spared from execution.  Included at the end is a modern-English text of the poem indicating key words that also appear in the Sonnets.  This paper was delivered recently to the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference in Portland, Oregon.   

The Southampton Tower Poem

Hank Whittemore

In February or March of 1601 the Earl of Southampton wrote a poem from the Tower of London, to Queen Elizabeth, begging for her mercy.  And in this paper I would like to present strong evidence that in the Tower he received some of the private Shakespearean sonnets from Oxford that helped him in the composition of his poem to the Queen.

The Tower

The Tower

He had been imprisoned on the night of February 8, 1601 after the so-called Rebellion had failed; he and Essex stood trial eleven days later; both were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be executed.  Essex was beheaded six days later, on the morning of February twenty-fifth; and then Southampton languished in his prison room waiting to be executed.Southampton wrote his poem to Elizabeth during the next three or four weeks, until around the twentieth of March, when he was unexpectedly spared the death penalty.   His sentence was quietly commuted to perpetual imprisonment – not only quietly, but secretly, because no official record of the reprieve has ever been found.

His poem written in the Tower was discovered by Lara Crowley, assistant professor of English at Texas Tech University, and printed in the winter 2011 issue of English Literary Renaissance.  Professor Crowley found the poem in the British Library, in a collection of miscellaneous folios prepared in the 1620’s or ‘30’s.  It was preserved in the form of a scribal copy, entitled “The Earl of Southampton prisoner, and condemned, to Queen Elizabeth.”  The seventy-four lines consist of thirty-seven rhymed couplets in Iambic pentameter – same as the Shakespeare sonnets, five feet or 10 beats per line; and same as the six rhymed couplets of the envoy to the fair youth series, Sonnet 126.  It’s the only poem Southampton is known to have written.

Professor Crowley calls it a “verse letter” to the Queen – in other words, even though it’s a literary work, it is nonetheless nonfictional and functional – intended as a means of communication and persuasion.  Crowley also refers to it as a “heartfelt plea” by Henry Wriothesley for his life.  She focuses on several key issues:

Southampton's was reduced to "Mr." in the Tower and "the late" earl

Southampton was reduced to “Mr.” and “the late” earl in the Tower

One is the authenticity of the poem.  In this regard she cites certain details within the poem that would be known only to Southampton himself and just a few others – the prison doctor, the Lieutenant of the Tower and Secretary Robert Cecil.  Also favoring authenticity is that Southampton wrote several letters to the Privy Council, as well as one to Cecil – and many of the key words in the poem are also employed in these letters.

A second issue is the question whether Southampton wrote the poem all by himself or with someone’s help.  Is it even possible, Crowley wonders, that some more “practiced” poet wrote it for him?  Could such help have come from Mr. Shakespeare?  Highly improbable, given the restricted access to Southampton, but she puts forth the question and lets it float out there.

A third matter is the literary quality of the poem.  Crowley notes the work is “unpolished” – but then we might predict that from a man expecting to face the executioner’s axe at any moment.  Unpolished though it may be, she writes, “the poem proves lyrical, powerful and persuasive.”

           Robert Cecil

Robert Cecil

Most important to Crowley is that the poem triggers a historical question: Why was Southampton spared?  There must have been a concrete reason; but there is nothing in the record, from the government or from anywhere else, with an explanation of what happened.  The professor dismisses any idea that Cecil was moved to save Southampton out of sympathy.   At this point he had the power – apparently even over Elizabeth – to make, or not make, this decision – and if he did spare a convicted traitor, he would have demanded something that he dearly wanted in return.

Of course, what he dearly wanted now was to bring James of Scotland to the throne.  At stake was Cecil’s own position of power and even his life; and now he faced a long, uncertain time of waiting for the Queen to die, during which time he had to conduct a secret and even treasonous correspondence with James that her Majesty might discover at any moment. It would take more than two years – a time of almost unbearable tension for Robert Cecil – and the question, given these high stakes, is what he might have demanded and gotten in return for sparing Southampton’s life.

The Southampton Tower Poem was of interest to me right away, because I realized it could have some bearing upon the theory of the Shakespeare sonnets as expressed in my edition The Monument.  A central aspect of the theory is that on the night of the failed rebellion, Edward de Vere began to write a string of sonnets – a sequence that he ultimately arranged in correspondence with each day (or night, if you will) until Southampton was either executed or given a reprieve. Oxford knew that Southampton’s fate would be determined sooner than later; in fact it took approximately forty days and forty nights until the reprieve; and in my view, no matter what the precise number of days, Oxford deliberately lined up exactly forty sonnets from number 27 to number 66.

I believe he made it forty to correspond with the forty days and forty nights that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness, as in the Gospel of Matthew; and part of the evidence for this conjecture is in Sonnet 76, where he points to that very section of the Gospel:

“And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights … And when the tempter came to him … he answered and said, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God’” – Matthew, 4.4

And in rather blatant correspondence, Oxford writes:

“That every word doth almost tell my name, showing their birth, and where they did proceed” – Sonnet 76

Now if those forty sonnets correspond with the forty days from the eighth of February 1601 to the nineteenth of March, we then have Southampton in the Tower during the very same time, waiting to learn his fate – and we know that in those days and nights he wrote his letters to the Council and to Cecil and, also, his poem to Elizabeth, pleading for mercy.  So if the theory of forty sonnets (27 to 66) during that time is correct, we should be able to predict that we’ll find some relationship between Oxford’s sonnets to Southampton and Southampton’s poem to the Queen.

First, a few markers:

 “When to the Sessions of sweet silent thought

I summon up remembrance of things past” – Sonnet 30

Given the premise that the sonnet is written just when Oxford is summoned to the sessions or treason trial, it would seem to be extraordinary corroboration.

Thy adverse party is thy Advocate – Sonnet 35

“Your (legal) opponent is also your (legal) defender.” – Duncan-Jones, editor

“Thy adverse party is thy advocate” would seem to describe Oxford’s role on the tribunal at the trial, having to be Southampton’s adverse party by voting to find him guilty and sentence him to death, but also promising to work behind the scenes as his advocate or legal defender.

To my knowledge, this is the only explanation of that line in terms of linking it to a specific historical and biographical event – the trial, and Oxford’s role on the tribunal – and also in terms of its accuracy and precision as a recognized legal reference.  And the line serves to suggest that Oxford had some way of helping Southampton – helping him write those letters to the Council, not only with words but with substance – and that he may have urged Southampton to plead with Elizabeth through poetry.  It would be logical to infer that in playing his role as advocate or defense counsel, Oxford either helped him write the poem, or at least suggested its themes if not its words.

Essex wrote a much longer poem to Elizabeth from the Tower, during the few days between the trial and his execution.  In that case, however, it was absolutely necessary for Cecil to destroy Essex by sending him to his death; therefore I would think it fairly certain that he made sure Elizabeth never did see the Essex poem.  In Oxford’s case, however, the proposition here is that he made a deal with Cecil, which included supporting the succession of King James … not to mention severing his relationship to “Shakespeare” and any connection to Southampton.  In return Cecil would make it possible for Oxford to help Southampton gain a reprieve.   And given the likelihood that Oxford advised Southampton to write a poem to her Majesty, the question is how he might have helped him — which brings us to another marker, this one in Sonnet 45, when Oxford refers to:

Those swift messengers returned from thee,

Who even but now come back again assured

Of thy fair health, recounting it to me.  – Sonnet 45

There are two topics here – one, he appears to be referring to messengers on horseback riding back and forth between Oxford’s home in Hackney and the Tower – and this may well indicate that he’s been able to get copies of sonnets delivered to Southampton. This, in my view, is quite in the realm of the possible and even the probable – first because of Oxford’s high rank and seeming ability to get away with so much, apparently because the Queen protected him; second because John Peyton, Lieutenant of the Tower, had been appointed by Cecil back in 1598, and owed his allegiance to him; and third because if Oxford made a deal with Cecil, it was in the Secretary’s best interest to enable such communication between Oxford and Southampton, so Oxford could play his part by helping him.  And this would include the proposition – the hypothesis, at this point – that as part of such communication, copies of the sonnets got into Southampton’s possession in the Tower.

The other part of these two lines is the clear reference to Southampton’s health.  He had fevers and swellings in his legs and other parts of his body, but he was being treated and apparently his health was improving.  In his poem to the Queen, Southampton refers specifically to his leg problem.

I’ve left my going since my legs’ strength decayed …

And it turns out that within Southampton’s Tower poem, as predicted, there’s a strong correspondence with Oxford’s Shakespearean sonnets.

At least forty-seven key words in the Shakespearean sonnets also appear in Southampton’s poem, of which the following twenty-four words might be emphasized:

Blood, Buried, Cancel, Condemned, Crimes, Dead, Die, Faults, Grave, Grief, Ill, Liberty, Loss, Mercy, Offenses, Pardon, Power, Princes, Prison, Sorrow, Stain, Tears, Tombs…

There are at least four distinct themes shared by both the Sonnets and the Southampton poem.   

1.      Crime – Fault – Offence – Ill Deed

2.      Grief – Loss – Sorrow – Tears

3.      Prison – Death – Tomb – Buried

4.      Plea/Beg – Mercy – Pardon – Liberty

First, the Crime or Fault or Offence

“The offender’s sorrow lends but weak relief

  To him that bears the strong offence’s cross.” – Sonnet 34

“I beg liberty to cancel old offences

  Better go ten such voyages than once offend

  The majesty of a Prince, where all things end” (Southampton)

“All men make faults, and even I in this” – Sonnet 35

“Where faults weigh down the scale” – (Southampton)

 “To you it doth belong

  Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime” – Sonnet 58

“Let grace so…

  Swim above all my crimes” – (Southampton)

Second, the expressions of grief and loss and sorrow:

 “But day doth daily draw my sorrows longer,

 And night doth nightly make grief’s length seem stronger” – Sonnet 28

 Sorrow, such ruins, as where a flood hath been

  On all my parts afflicted, hath been seen:

  My face which grief plowed…” (Southampton)

 “Though thou repent, yet I have still the loss” – Sonnet 34

 “And I with eating do no more engross

 Than one that plays small game after great loss” (Southampton)

And also in this category, here’s a comparison:

 “To dry the rain on my storm-beaten face” – Sonnet 34

 “And in the wrinkles of my cheeks, tears lie

 Like furrows filled with rain, and no more dry” (Southampton)

A third category is Southampton as a prisoner condemned to be executed and feeling buried alive.  And here I think is an amazing comparison — Oxford in my view pictures Southampton and his friends in prison, who are not yet executed, but existing unseen in the darkness of coming death – and he weeps while picturing Southampton himself as a living grave.

“Then can I drown an eye (un-used to flow)

  For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night

  How many a holy and obsequious tear

  Hath dear religious love stolen from mine eye…

  Thou art the grave where buried love doth live…” – Sonnets 30 & 31 

Southampton, in turn, pictures the prison itself as a grave or tomb, in which he is buried alive, and legally dead, that is, found guilty of treason and condemned to death.

“While I yet breathe, and sense and motion have

  (For this a prison differs from a grave),

  Prisons are living men’s tombs, who there go

  As one may, sith say the dead walk so.

  There I am buried quick: hence one may draw

  I am religious because dead in law.” (Southampton)

 And a fourth area of comparison involves the Queen’s singular ability to grant a pardon.

“The imprisoned absence of your liberty

  To you it doth belong

  Yourself to pardon of self-doing crime” – Sonnet 58

 “Not to live more at ease (Dear Prince) of thee

  But with new merits, I beg liberty

  If faults were not, how could great Princes then

  Approach so near God in pardoning men?” (Southampton)

We know Oxford’s concept of the monarch being able to substitute mercy for justice – as he would write to Cecil later, about King James (but really about any monarch): “Nothing adorns a king more than justice, nor in anything doth a King more resemble God than in justice, which is the head of all virtue…”  Southampton expresses the same idea by writing that “mercy” is an “antidote to justice” — mercy as a remedy to ensure the right kind of justice.

Wisdom and valor common men have known,

But only mercy is the Prince’s own.

Mercy’s an antidote to justice… (Southampton)

He associates the Queen with the miracle worker who cured Naaman’s condition, and he mentions the River Jordan, thereby linking Elizabeth with Christ, the ultimate exemplar of mercy.

Had I the leprosy of Naaman,

Your mercy hath the same effects as Jordan. (Southampton)

The vast majority of these key words, within these basic categories, fall not only within those first forty sonnets numbered 27 to 66, but, moreover, virtually all the key words from the Shakespeare sonnets used by Southampton come from the first twenty of them.  And most of those words are found within the first ten – within the sequence of Sonnets 27 to 36 – and the key words from these sonnets are also used by Southampton in his poem to the Queen:

SONNETS 27 to 36:

Sonnet 28 – SORROWS, GRIEF



Sonnet 32 – DEATH, DIED




Sonnet 36 – BLOTS (i.e., STAIN)

The proposition is that upon the night of the failed rebellion, Edward de Vere began to write and compile sonnets that would ultimately correspond with the days of waiting to see if Southampton would live or die by execution.  The further proposition is that Oxford, while trying to work a deal with Cecil to save Southampton’s life, was able to send messages – including some of these sonnets – to Southampton in the Tower.

Now, with the existence of a poem that Southampton himself wrote to the Queen, the added proposition is that he drew upon Oxford’s sonnets for words, concepts or themes as well as inspiration.  And given the preponderance of such words and themes within the forty sonnets 27 to 66, covering those forty days, the further proposition is that Southampton drew mainly from these particular sonnets, which, as a practical matter, would have been delivered to him in the Tower before any of the others. 

I suggest that what we have here amounts to very near certainty, if not absolute proof, that the real-life context of these Shakespearean sonnets is in fact the plight of Southampton in prison after the failed Essex Rebellion and his desperate need for a reprieve from the Queen; and I must add that – in this context of time and circumstance – Queen Elizabeth becomes, without question, the so-called Dark Lady of Sonnets 127 to 152, wherein we find:

“Straight in her heart did mercy come”(Sonnet 145)

Following is a modern-English version of the Southampton Tower Poem (February-March 1601).  Emphasized are key words that also appear (in one form or another) within the Shakespearean Sonnets 27 to 126.

The Earl of Southampton Prisoner, and Condemned, to Queen Elizabeth:

Not to live more at ease (Dear Prince) of thee

But with new merits, I beg liberty 

To cancel old offences; let grace so

(As oil all liquor else will overflow)

Swim above all my crimes.  In lawn, a stain

Well taken forth may be made serve again.

Perseverance in ill is all the ill.  The horses may,

That stumbled in the morn, go well all day.

If faults were not, how could great Princes then

Approach so near God, in pardoning men?

Wisdom and valor, common men have known,

But only mercy is the Prince’s own.

Mercy’s an antidote to justice, and will,

Like a true blood-stone, keep their bleeding still.

Where faults weigh down the scale, one grain of this

Will make it wise, until the beam it kiss.

Had I the leprosy of Naaman,

Your mercy hath the same effects as Jordan.

As surgeons cut and take from the sound part

That which is rotten, and beyond all art

Of healing, see (which time hath since revealed),

Limbs have been cut which might else have been healed.

While I yet breath and sense and motion have

(For this a prison differs from a grave),

Prisons are living men’s tombs, who there go

As one may, sith say the dead walk so.

There I am buried quick: hence one may draw

I am religious because dead in law.

One of the old Anchorites, by me may be expressed:

A vial hath more room laid in a chest:

Prisoners condemned, like fish within shells lie

Cleaving to walls, which when they’re opened, die:

So they, when taken forth, unless a pardon     

(As a worm takes a bullet from a gun)

Take them from thence, and so deceive the sprights

Of people, curious after rueful sights.

Sorrow, such ruins, as where a flood hath been

On all my parts afflicted, hath been seen:

My face which grief plowed, and mine eyes when they

Stand full like two nine-holes, where at boys play

And so their fires went out like Iron hot

And put into the forge, and then is not

And in the wrinkles of my cheeks, tears lie

Like furrows filled with rain, and no more dry:

Mine arms like hammers to an anvil go

Upon my breast: now lamed with beating so

Stand as clock-hammers, which strike once an hour

Without such intermission they want power.

I’ve left my going since my legs’ strength decayed

Like one, whose stock being spent give over trade.

And I with eating do no more engross

Than one that plays small game after great loss                                              

Is like to get his own: or then a pit

With shovels emptied, and hath spoons to fill it.

And so sleep visits me, when night’s half spent

As one, that means nothing but complement.

Horror and fear, like cold in ice, dwell here;

And hope (like lightning) gone ere it appear:

With less than half these miseries, a man

Might have twice shot the Straits of Magellan;

Better go ten such voyages than once offend

The Majesty of a Prince, where all things end

And begin: why whose sacred prerogative

He as he list, we as we ought live.

All mankind lives to serve a few: the throne

(To which all bow) is sewed to by each one.

Life, which I now beg, wer’t to proceed

From else whoso’er, I’d first choose to bleed

But now, the cause, why life I do implore

Is that I think you worthy to give more.

The light of your countenance, and that same

Morning of the Court favor, where at all aim,

Vouchsafe unto me, and be moved by my groans,      

For my tears have already worn these stones

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  1. Now I’m curious: if Southampton really had connection with Oxford’s sonnets, then didn’t he knew his friend was Shakespeare and dedicated him two erotic poems? And didn’t he knew then his friend was not only Shakespeare, but was he true father, as well Elizabeth was his mother, and “Venus and Adonis” was about that same matter?

    • Yes, sure he did. Southampton must have known his true parentage at least by 1590 or 1591, when Oxford would have sent him the private sonnets about the need to perpetuate his Tudor blood. (Sonnets 1-17) At least by then. I believe a deal had been made, between Oxford and Burghley, in 1581, that Oxford would re-unite with Anne Cecil and try to produce an heir to his earldom with her; and that when Southampton and Elizabeth Vere became teenagers, circa 1590-91, they would marry and produce a child and future royal heir to follow Southampton. Burghley would find a way to have the Queen announce her choice of successor, perhaps even claiming Oxford and Elizabeth had been privately betrothed in the early 1570’s. Which they may have been, at a time when Oxford had thought he had not consummated his marriage to Cecil’s daughter.

      One problem may have been that Essex was also the child of the queen (by Leicester) and Southampton took a back seat because of age. But who knows. Cecil surely accused Essex of wanting to make himself king, from 1596 onward. So Cecil must have accepted that a royal bastard could in fact gain the throne.

      Francisco, your previous material seems to be accurate. Quite a big story. I am making some notes on it and will try to contribute.

      • Whittemore,

        you should keep in mind the Act of Treason in 1571. Burghley ordened it and there is a passage which say that every “natural fruit of her Majesty’s body can be lawful to heir the throne” (I mentioned in one of my previous comment and I can’t remeber right now it well but it was something like this).

        The Act was made in the summer of 1571. In that same year, Burghley made Oxford married his daughter. If Oxford was a royal bastard himself, the Act make lawful to him to heir the throne and if he married Anne, the Cecil family would be gratificated, more than it was.

        Essex must have know this Act, so he could heir the throne too. And he must knew too he had royal blood and his true parents were Elizabeth and Leicester (Francis Bacon must have been too). But why do we have Robert Cecil vexing royal bastards? Because he wants James to take the throne? Why does he want to kill the Tudor Dinasty? I think the answer is simply: he was a royal bastard too.

        Streitz stated he was born to Elizabeth and Leicester when she was passing through her smallpox. He must have born when her smallpox wasn’t yet the dangerous problem that would affect her health (almost) until death. But it would have been enough to make Cecil born “humpback”. His “disease” and his (foster)father’s greed and arrogance through the people and his abuse of power, didn’t make him famous for good reasons. No one would have want him to be king if he had the chance, certainly, and he knew it. I think is for that he make so many roya bastards suffers (he arrested Southampton; killed Essex; made Oxford to silent himself forever; was he behind Bacon’s political fall?)

        If he was Leartes, don’t forget Leartes in Hamlet says he himself is a royal bastard.

        One more question: what do you want to say about “previous material”? Are you refering to “Hero and Leander” and the authorship of Oxford-Marlowe?

  2. Hi Francisco, I’m sure Hank does have in his mind what you mention, as it can be found in The Monument.

  3. Nevertheless, I really enjoy the discussion, lots of interesting facts and assumptions from you and Hank 🙂

    • I do, too, Sandy.

  4. I think once I wrote about it, but reading Francisco’s comment I repeat it: I can’t see the probability that Elizabeth, the Grand Queen, negotiating with ambassadors, trying to find a match, showing her Virgin Face, could spend so many years pregnant, without the world being aware of it. Once – all right, as Hank shows documents from about the age when Southampton was born. But several times means several years. What’s more, in case of Southampton there are the Sonnets which is a proof, though there are about 5-10 people in the world who still can’t see it. ( 🙂 )
    But all the other names I regard speculation – interesting surely, but no more, without any proof, and without the real chance of its being hidden from the world.

    • Or maybe, Sandy, we are just exagerating.

      I followed Streitz logic by including Mary Sidney and Elizabeth Leighton as Elizabeths bastards. When Baconians started to say Elizabeth gave birth to children, they talked only in Bacon and Essex. To me, this two must have been her bastards by Leicester.

      I am more than conficed that Oxford was Elizabeth’s first born and Southampton was fruit of an incest between this two.

      To be true, I think Elizabeth bore Oxford with her stepfather Seymour (she wrote in a letter during the summer of 1548 denning she was in the Tower of London and she was pregnet, but no one in that time said she was pregnet). We have letters of the Spanish Ambassadors talking to the King of Spain saying “She is what we thought she was” while talking on the matter of her affair with Leicester. (you can find some of this matter here http://www.sirbacon.org/links/marriageofet.htm). The baby she bore in the summer of 1548 turn out ot be her lover during the 70s, in an incest which result on Southampton.

      Streitz said Cecil was one of Elizabeth’s bastard too by Leicester. I think the evidence he found for this must have been a quote by Laertes in “Hamlet” in which he reveals he came back from Paris because he is a royal bastard and he deserve to be king. I may quote (once again) that quote but now I don’t have much time.

      • Thank you, I’ve read what you recommended at the sirbacon.org. Quite interesting. I should more times read it, but seeing the documents, I no longer think that it was impossible for the Queen to have more children. A true detective story 🙂

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